Tag Archive: Grateful Dead


American Stones

In the ‘60s, rock and roll that was completely American was… kinda lame. After the Day the Music Died and the Chuck Berry/Jerry Lee Lewis pedophilia scandals (thanks, you two for RUINING everything…) America dropped the rock and roll ball. Luckily, the U.K. was ready to swoop in after not too long with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who. Those bands were all so huge that America spent the next 5 years making carbon copies of British originals. The Beach Boys and other surf rock bands were the only originality the States had to offer. That should tell you something…

the corner of Haight & Ashbury

the corner of Haight & Ashbury

Then came the explosion of the Haight-Ashbury culture, which saw bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane coming to the front, and the dark drug culture of the Doors, opposite of the happy pot-smokers in San Francisco. Creedence Clearwater Revival offered a little southern-fried jangle and drawl, but they were too short-lived. And then there was Jimi Hendrix, an American trying to convince all of Europe he was one of them. His backup band was British, and he behaved like a Brit, so who was to say (other than his parents) that he was really American?

It’s ironic but true – rock and roll may have been started by black American blues musicians, but by the ‘60s, it was the domain of British white guys.

In the early ‘70s, things started to heat back up in America, but only slightly. The first few years saw a glut of bands like Kansas, Foreigner, Journey and Styx. But little did the world know that they would soon see the unleashing of a Boston juggernaut: Aerosmith.

Aerosmith

Aerosmith

When Aerosmith slithered on the scene, their eponymous first album was released at the same time and on the same label as another savior of American rock and roll, Bruce Springsteen. Because of that, they didn’t get their proper acknowledgement until a few years later. It also meant they had time to actually earn it. By their third album, Toys In the Attic, they were not only the tightest band making music, but they were ready to be hoisted up as America’s answer to all those great British groups.

It wasn’t an accident that Aerosmith reminded the public of the Rolling Stones. Steven Tyler had a swagger, style and physical profile very similar to those of Mick Jagger, just like Joe Perry was akin to Keith Richards in both appearance and guitar style. Steven and Joe even had a similar dynamic to Mick and Keith; one was the flamboyant and crowd-pleasing frontman, while the other was quieter and more unobtrusive, providing mystique.

I’m not saying there was anything insidious or contrived going on here. Record execs didn’t generate the idea of emulating the Stones in the hope of making more money. Rather, this was a simple matter of Steven and Joe admiring the Stones so damn much. Aerosmith probably made a conscious decision to look like Mick and Keith (long dark hair, skinny, colorful dress), but the similar stage relationship between the two had to be instinctual. To Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones were just “how it was done.” Why wouldn’t they be similar?

Next: the Big Three of rock stardom – can you guess what they are?

I’m sure you can visualize the scene: two long-haired gadabouts clad in dirty black cargo pants and Slayer t-shirts go to the home of one of them to smoke a bag of weed they just scored. They go to the tool shed in the backyard, converted to a drug haven for the two potheads, with metal posters on the walls, a lava lamp and an old, smelly couch with the upholstery spilling out of the cushions. The only thing needed to complete the scene before the two wastoids light up is some groovy, crunchy tunes. One of them goes to the CD player and very ironically puts on Master of Reality, and the first sounds of Tony Iommi coughing (presumably from marijuana smoke) starts in, and the other one nods and says “niiiiice.”

There; how’s that for completely unqualified knowledge from a guy who’s never done an illegal drug in his life?

A lot of people point to Master of Reality as the birth of what’s called “stoner rock.” It usually involves very distorted guitars, minor keys and simple, repetitive figures. An entire song can consist of one riff of two measures repeated for 4 minutes.

If you ask me, I’m not sure “stoner rock” really exists; it might be no more than music scholars having too much time on their hands but needing to validate their choice of career, and thus creating sub-sub-sub-subcategories for everything under the sun. I shouldn’t speak too ill of them, though, since I definitely wouldn’t turn down someone offering to pay me actual money to invent terms like “stoner rock.” The more I think about it, the more it’s sounding like a really good gig.

Here’s my argument. In my mind, stoner rock is music that provides a good soundtrack for getting high, and it helps if there is a positive reference to the uses and powers of drugs. Under that definition, Phish would be stoner rock. So would the Black Crowes. And Cypress Hill. So would Bob Marley, Enya, the Spin Doctors and Enigma. In fact, a case could be made for almost any band having at least one song that qualifies as stoner rock, which is what makes the label so problematic.

The questionable status of stoner rock aside, Master of Reality does have plodding guitars and lazy approach to musicality (simple and bluesy, not a lot of adornment), both of which make it particularly suited to leaning back and getting wasted. That combined with the opening track being a romantic ode to marijuana and it’s easy to see why Master of Reality gets associated with the drug culture. If there is such a thing as stoner rock, “Sweet Leaf” is the quintessential song of the genre, but it’s really the only qualifying one on the entirety of Master of Reality, and arguably in Sabbath’s entire catalog.

Hippies were really ancestors of modern-day stoners, and Black Sabbath shares some lyrical commonality with them on this album, if not musically. In 1971, The music culture was reacting to the hippie movement, and acts like Black Sabbath, the Stooges and David Bowie had an opposite aesthetic to hippie bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, even if they sometimes had matching lyrical themes.

“Children of the Grave” is a breath away from being a protest song, very in line with the hippie movement. While it has very dark and doomy music, it promotes revolution through non-violence and passive resistance. The title is a little deceiving; it makes you think it’s about zombies or something, and it takes a slightly more sardonic and fatalistic tone. You might not expect it from a band so often associated with Satanism, but “Children of the Grave” is quite positive. It centers on love.

Love, believe it or not, is a big theme of Master of Reality. Metal bands nowadays have a huge aversion to themes like love, forgiveness, joy and positivity. Instead, they myopically focus on suffering, evil, torture, self-loathing and chaos. Love is uncool. Yet here, on what is largely agreed upon to be one of the bedrock albums of heavy metal, Black Sabbath are talking about not only love, but (gasp!) God.

Next up: Black Sabbath says “God is the only way to love…” wait, what???

I went to a Christian college, one where chapel was semi-required – you had to accrue a certain amount of “Christian Life and Service” credits during the school year or pay a fine, and chapel was the easiest way to get CLS credits. Three mornings a week, most of the school would gather at the church on campus for about 45 minutes. The “good” kids sat up front and got into the worship; the “bad” kids sat in the back with their headphones in or homework for the next class; the “really bad” kids didn’t show up at all.

Once a year for about a week, we had Revival. It was a scheduled event where chapel was every day (including the weekend), and where the tone of chapel was turned towards holiness, conviction, and getting right with God, in order to create a sweeping-up of people to get “on fire” for God. For me, it was a good opportunity to get caught up on chapels I had missed, but little more. Truth be told, it always seemed very strange to me. The idea that you could schedule a revival (for a certain week and not another) was contradictory to the very concept of revival. When there’s true revival, things change, the Holy Spirit moves, and everyone feels God’s presence to a radical degree. But it can’t be manufactured on a week of the college administration’s choosing.

That desire to re-create something spiritual and unknowable reminds me of the Altamont Free Concert. The promoters of Altamont tried to repeat the magic that happened at Woodstock and Monterey Pop. While they should have known that those events were unrepeatable, there was no way they could foresee the horrible way things would end.

Be warned; what follows is the lowest point in the life of the Rolling Stones, and one of the darkest moments in all of rock and roll history. Brian Jones’s death was just an indicator, a warning shot from God to the Stones that things were about to get really bad.

Like most badly-remembered points in history, Altamont started with the best of intentions. When you plan a concert, make it outdoors on a huge site, include a bunch of very famous bands on the bill, and don’t charge admission, profits probably aren’t your main concern. That leaves creating an event where music is celebrated, which is pretty pure in the scope of things. From the time the Stones announced the free concert, which they would headline, the press touted it as “Woodstock West.” It came less than a year after that “Festival of Peace, Love and Music,” and involved a few of the same people at the organizational level. But the romance and perfection of Woodstock couldn’t be manufactured at will.

the Hells Angels didn’t have guns – they had pool cues

The first mistake the promoters made was hiring the Hells Angels, a motorcycle gang, to handle security (if you hire a biker gang, what do you think is gonna happen?). Their second mistake was having the agreement with them be so loose as to make no mention of the word “security” at all. The terms, as the Angels understood them, were “we keep people away from the generators, and we get free beer.” No money exchanged, no contracts, no paperwork, no nothin’. It was kind of a gentlemen’s agreement, but the Hells Angels are no gentlemen. I’m not much for red tape, but I think in this case it would have not only have made things go more smoothly, but would have maybe prevented tragedy.

Things didn’t go well. There was an incident in the afternoon where Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin jumped off the stage in the middle of a song to help a fan who was getting the crap kicked out of him by a Hells Angel. The Grateful Dead (who had suggested the Hells Angels in the first place because they had used them before with success) were scheduled to go on after Jefferson Airplane, but decided not to perform in protest. Then evening came, darkness fell, and the Rolling Stones took the stage. After fighting broke out during “Sympathy For the Devil,” Mick Jagger implored the crowd to calm down and be cool. He then performed a somber rendition of “Under My Thumb.” It was during that song that Stones fan Meredith Hunter, after pulling a long-barreled pistol from his coat, was murdered by a Hells Angel.

A documentary film crew was present; they had filmed the Rolling Stones in the studio, and were on hand for the entire Altamont experience. When the murder happened, they caught the whole thing on film. The movie they made, Gimme Shelter, included footage of a very sad Mick Jagger looking at the concert tapes. The most poignant moment is when he’s watching the performance of “Under My Thumb” and freezes the frame right when the knife that killed Meredith Hunter connected.

Let It Bleed had already been released at this point, and Altamont was the Stones’ big opportunity to promote it. “Gimme Shelter,” the lead-off track, had likewise already been recorded several months before. The music is eerie and unsettling; not a new thing for the Stones by any means, but the eeriness was escalated by the tragic events that took place only a week later. It’s freaky how prophetic this song is. The lyrics speak of an insidious force threatening the life of the singer, and an atmosphere of gloom and death. In the bridge, there is even talk of “rape” and “murder.” However, the song ends on a hopeful note: “I tell ya love, sister – it’s just a kiss away.”

“Gimme Shelter” features Merry Clayton on backing vocals. She sings the bridge with such emotional power that it even takes Mick Jagger aback, as he can be heard saying “Whoo!” in the background after her voice cracks for the second time. Merry was pregnant at the time of recording, and suffered a miscarriage later that day; the strain of hitting the highest notes was a little too much.

The Rolling Stones are one of the only bands to ever have a murder happen during one of its live performances. “Gimme Shelter” is an unthinkably awesome song just by itself, but when it’s viewed in light of the giant debacle that is Altamont, its greatness rises to about 3 times its original level. Many critics call Altamont the point in history where the romance and glittering sheen of the hippie movement not only wore off, but was killed with devastating prejudice. To me, it was a turning point. It was a time when a large group of people said, “this isn’t true for us anymore,” and they went in search of another truth.

More about Let It Bleed tomorrow!